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OSINT and Information Environment Assessments for the Middle East, Africa, and Europe

Summary:

From US-Iran tensions to the Ukraine war and economic opportunities in Africa, EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) houses several areas of interest for Western governments.

Organizations like NATO are prioritizing information environment assessment capabilities to better understand social and geopolitical changes in these regions. Open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathered from social media supports timely, nuanced insights for these assessments.

Bottom Line:

Populations in EMEA use a variety of online networks to communicate and document on-the-ground events. These include regional defense forums and social media specific to various countries. Advanced OSINT solutions can help analysts leverage this publicly-available content for more accurate information environment assessments.

 


 

Full Article:

What do the Middle East, Africa, and Europe have in common? 

They are all priorities for the Kremlin, which is building security alliances with countries that it views as overlooked by the United States and its allies.

These and other geopolitical activities in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe are of interest to intelligence leaders and government organizations like NATO—which is developing new capabilities for global information environment assessments.

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It goes without saying that these three regions include a vast diversity in cultures, languages, and geopolitical climates. For intelligence analysts, these regions also encompass a variety of publicly-available online sources that are valuable for understanding local information environments.

Why are these regions of interest to Western governments, and how can OSINT support effective information environment assessments?

Middle East, Africa, Europe: Current Areas of Interest

US Tensions with Iran

When it comes to the Middle East, the Council on Foreign Relations names several conflicts with significant impacts on US interests:

  • Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • Instability in Iraq and Lebanon
  • Conflict in Syria
  • Conflicts between Turkey and armed Kurdish groups

However, the confrontation with Iran is ranked as the most critical conflict in the region in terms of US interests. Despite the establishment of the JCPOA in 2015, Iran has expanded its regional goals and terrorism sponsorships in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and other countries through its Quds force—which the US has designated as a foreign terrorist organization. Iran has also continued ballistic missile development, which has sparked further sanctions from the United States.

At the time of writing this article, Washington and Tehran are still in the process of renegotiating a nuclear deal, which former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. Since Trump’s withdrawal, Iran has breached the original deal and grown its uranium stockpile beyond the deal’s limitations.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a conflict escalation “would have significant economic, political, and security implications for the United States,” including higher global oil prices and jeopardized relationships with US allies.

How OSINT Supports Information Environment Assessments

  • Social media content can reveal on-the-ground activities in real-time, which is helpful for assessing technology and military developments in the Middle East.
  • Open sources like niche online defense forums and communication networks provide local insights for geopolitical risk assessments in the region.
  • Hard-to-access sites on the deep and dark web are useful for gathering cybersecurity risk intelligence related to Iran.


On-the-ground footage of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip in 2021 geotagged by the Echosec Systems Platform

Economic Opportunities and Counterterrorism in Africa

For Western governments, interests in Africa span both economics and geopolitics. To provide some context, there are 16 African countries with free-market economies and free elections containing around one billion people. African consumer spending is projected to increase to $6.6 trillion by 2040, and major companies are investing in African technology ventures. The continent is home to a young and willing workforce and is abundant in natural resources.

China has recognized and seized these opportunities over the last two decades, replacing the United States as Africa’s primary trading partner. The US must be proactive in Africa’s opportunities for manufacturing, technology investments, consumer goods, and even cultural influence and soft power. This will be necessary to keep up with the influence of other global powers in Africa. 

The rise of terrorism and extremism in Africa is also a concern. While global terrorism-linked deaths declined significantly between 2014 and 2019, terrorist incidents have grown in Africa. According to the Global Terrorism Index 2020, seven of the ten countries that experienced the largest increase in terrorism are in sub-Saharan Africa. Islamist insurgencies tend to operate in three main regions: Somalia, the Sahel, and the area around Lake Chad and northeast Nigeria.

Without adequate support (which intersects with economic interests) in these areas, western governments risk enabling extremist groups to expand, connect with groups in other countries, and escalate into a global risk.

 

How OSINT Supports Information Environment Assessments

  • Social media, news, and other publicly-available websites help analysts assess technology and infrastructure developments from other nations, like China, in African countries.
  • These sources can also gauge trends in public sentiment and culture in African regions of interest. This can be valuable for establishing cultural influence and soft power or capitalizing on consumer opportunities.
  • Online networks enable extremist groups to appeal to younger audiences and recruit. Monitoring mainstream sources like YouTube, as well as less-regulated or regional networks, enables analysts to detect and counter extremist propaganda.

 


Geotagged social media posts related to the Tigray conflict are mapped using the Echosec Systems Platform

The Ukraine Conflict

Russian activity in Ukraine has raised concerns since the Crimean Peninsula’s annexation in 2014. Skirmishes persisted intermittently from 2014, but tensions renewed in spring and again in the fall of 2021 when Russian military buildups near Ukraine’s border sparked fears of a potential invasion—which launched on February 24, 2022.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been marked by:

  • Ruthless attacks against Ukraine’s civilian populations, such as the atrocities in Bucha.
  • Russian media manipulation positioning Ukraine and NATO as the conflict’s main aggressors, minimize the reality of the war for Russians, and increase media censorship. This has resulted in the shutdown of non-state media outlets and access to some western social media networks.
  • A major humanitarian crisis: over 5.3 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country and 6.5 million people are displaced within Ukraine.

NATO and its allies have responded by imposing severe economic and energy sanctions against Russia. As of April 2022, the US has provided $3.7 billion in security assistance to Ukraine as well as $1 billion in economic support.

 

How OSINT Supports Information Environment Assessments

  • Satellite imagery and smartphone-captured content on social media have proven valuable for:
    • Discovering and investigating war crimes, including civilian attacks
    • Monitoring military activities in real-time
    • Predicting and proactively debunking Russian propaganda
    • Determining casualty numbers and other losses
  • Social media content from networks popular within Russia, as well as proxy networks like the dark web, are useful for assessing sentiment and other trends in Russia’s information environment.

Middle East, Africa, Europe: Social Media Sources

In addition to mainstream social networks, netizens in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe use a plethora of sites unique to these regions. If you’re an analyst assigned to any of these areas, here are some examples of OSINT sources to keep in mind.

 

A word cloud representing posts that mention “China” on the Nigerian network Nairaland

Middle East

  • Arab Defense Forum

A forum covering military and defense topics in North Africa and West Asia. Regional politics, like Israel-Palestine relations, are also common on this site.

  • Defence Hub

A forum for international defense news, military technology, and regional conflict updates. Defence Hub has high user engagement, making it useful for gathering non-Western sentiment on defense topics, real-time news updates, and sophisticated technical content on military hardware. Focus regions include Eurasian and Western Asian regions with an emphasis on Turkey, Syria, Iran, and the GCC.

  • Turkish Talk

A German forum (the Turkish community in Germany is the largest outside of Turkey) hosting current events and political discussions.

Africa

  • Nairaland

A Nigerian forum for news, politics, and current events. The site is the 6th most popular in the country with 2.6 million users and 6 million threads, including all historical data from 2005 forward. Nairaland’s most popular conversation topics cover the federal government, making it valuable for public sentiment analysis.

  • Tunisia Sat

A Tunisian discussion forum containing Arabic-language content covering news and current events. Other topics include technology, finance, and religion.

Europe

  • Dvach

A popular anonymous Russian imageboard. The site is associated with misogyny, cyberbullying, and trolling, having doxxed notorious Russian criminals in a country where criminal activity is often closely linked to the government. Dvach users largely originate from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and other smaller countries. Dvach data can help analysts understand public sentiment and Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

  • OK.ru (Odnoklassniki)

A Russian social network similar to Facebook. The site allows users to create a profile, engage in private chats and discussion boards, share updates and images, and participate in games.

  • VK (VKontakte)

A popular Russian social network. VK’s minimal search restrictions and high usage (it’s the most visited website in Russia) make it useful for assessing public sentiment and cultural trends in the Russian population. With the right OSINT software, analysts can precisely geo-locate VK posts.

In addition to mainstream sites used globally—like Twitter and YouTube—regionally-relevant sources like those above help analysts develop more accurate, nuanced information environment assessments in target regions. 

However, navigating these sites manually is inefficient. Many of them the lack search and translation capabilities needed for Western intelligence analysts. Advanced OSINT tools like the Echosec Systems Platform are valuable for consolidating location-specific data sources and providing search tools for multilingual searching and data analysis.

As tensions and opportunities develop in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, intelligence leaders need to invest in sophisticated open-source technologies. This will enable governments to generate reliable intelligence quickly enough to gain an information advantage.

 

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